Now the company has two projects called Ground Truth, which allows people to correct errors online, and Map Maker, which allows them to build their own maps.
In the western US, Ground Truth and Map Maker have been used to add a missing road, correct a one-way street, and generally improve what’s already there. In Africa, Asia and other less well covered areas of the world, Google is helping people literally put themselves on the map.
In 2008 it could take six to 18 months for Google to update a map. The company would have to go back to the firm that provided its map information and get people to check it, make corrections and send it back to Google.
“At that point we decided we wanted to bring that information in-house,” McClendon said.
Google now updates its maps hundreds of times a day. Anyone can correct errors they find through Ground Truth. Google checks and relies on other users to spot mistakes.
Thousands of people every day use Google’s Map Maker to recreate their world online, said Michael Weiss-Malik, engineering director at Google Maps. Pakistanis living in the UK have basically built the whole map of their native country, he said. Using aerial shots and local information, people have created the most detailed maps that have ever existed of cities such as Karachi. It is a labor-intensive process. It is also the fastest updating map in history. Google even maintains a live stream where you can watch edits happening in real time.
“The fact is, the real world is changing. Chasing the real world is our measure. It’s not how we compare to our competitors, it’s how we compare to the real world,” McClendon said.
It is not just the great outdoors that Google wants to map. The company is increasingly interested in mapping indoors. McClendon was recently in Tokyo’s Shinjuku station, the world’s busiest transport hub. Shinjuku has 35 platforms, well over 200 exits and is used by more than 3.64 million people a day. Google has it mapped.
Once he has his map, McClendon says, the real challenge is what not to show. The London Underground map, a design classic that is easy to read, is an example of the old world idea of a map.
“They reduced it down to the most readable form that still contains all the information. They’ve done that so everybody can read it. But imagine if you saw the London underground system only as you use it,” he said. “Your map would let you know which lines are busy, change to reflect your working pattern, the time of day, what you do at the weekend. The ability to remove information allows you space to provide another level of more personalized information. A map that tries to answer every question for every person is effectively unreadable.”
But you can only do that once you have all the information people might need.
“You need to have the basic structure of the world so you can place the relevant information on top of it. If you don’t have an accurate map, everything else is inaccurate,” he said.
Google’s domination of mapping has some people worried. The company has run into difficulties regarding privacy, not least in Germany, where Google abandoned Street View after clashes with the authorities. It was fined in the US after it was discovered that Street View cars were collecting private information from people’s wireless networks.